On Saturday, when the Bengals visit the Texans, two rookie quarterbacks will square off against one another for the first time in the NFL playoffs. The history books are not particularly kind to first-year quarterbacks under the bright lights of January; the average performance in the postseason1 sees them go just 13-of-26 for 161 yards with a touchdown and two picks.
Only one of these teams, of course, is starting a rookie quarterback by choice. The Bengals have led an impressive turnaround to 9-7 upon a mostly new passing offense. Last year, Carson Palmer was throwing to Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco; this year, it's Andy Dalton tossing to the sensational A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson. The common thread between those two sets of skill position players is criminally underrated tight end Jermaine Gresham, who makes the whole thing work.
Houston, meanwhile, was sitting pretty at 7-3 before Matt Schaub suffered a season-ending foot injury. They briefly turned the ball over to Matt Leinart before his collarbone gave way to fifth-rounder T.J. Yates, who has looked erratic at the helm of a hyper-conservative offense. The Texans were able to go .500 the rest of the way, but they're now a team on its third-string quarterback that has endured a season-ending injury to its best defender (Mario Williams) and a series of injuries that have sapped the effectiveness and availability of its best player, wideout Andre Johnson. One common mistake in evaluating a team's playoff chances is to consider its body of work from the regular season without actually evaluating the team that's likely to step on the field; that question has to be called into play with Houston.
It was Yates who scrambled for 17 yards on third-and-15 on the final drive against the Bengals in Week 14, picking up a first down that would set up a game-winning touchdown on the final play from scrimmage. That 20-19 Texans win was a sloppy game that saw Houston come back from a 16-3 halftime deficit, thanks to some incredible bounces on fumbles. Each team recovered three of the six fumbles on the day, and Texans running back Ben Tate lost a fumble inside the Bengals 5-yard line to kill a crucial drive, but Houston rode its breaks to the win. The Texans recovered one of their own fumbles on a kickoff at the 20-yard line, and forced a Dalton fumble on a stripsack deep in Bengals territory to start the third quarter. Their real miracle, though, came later on a bizarre fumble that saw Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins recover the initial Arian Foster fumble before Atkins fumbled himself inside the 10-yard line, and when two Bengals with a clear path to the end zone couldn't fall on the ball, star Texans right tackle Eric Winston recovered the ball on his own 2-yard line. And that's without including the awful spot on a third-and-15 Bengals conversion that could have sealed the game, or the baffling false-start call on the ensuing fourth-and-1 that forced Cincinnati to punt.
Cincinnati outplayed Houston in that game, but the Texans have a right to believe that things will be different. They're at home this time. Andre Johnson will be back in the lineup, and the team rested most of its stars during last week's loss to Tennessee. Right guard Mike Brisiel is likely to return after suffering a fractured fibula, which should increase the effectiveness of an already impressive Houston running game. The Bengals have their own shifting injury situation, though. Right guard Bobbie Williams was injured against the Texans and is on injured reserve, as is slot receiver Andre Caldwell, but the Bengals will have top pass-rusher Carlos Dunlap and mammoth right tackle Andre Smith back after they missed the Houston game four weeks ago. This game could end up coming down to which group of returning players can contribute more.
Texans on Offense
Historically, when a starting quarterback goes down, the efficiency and effectiveness of the running game also declines. The numbers bear it out, but the logic behind it is also sound. With less of a passing game to worry about, defenses get more aggressive and start bringing extra defenders into the box. That should have gone double with Johnson, injured for most of Yates' tenure, but the Texans running game hasn't lost a beat without Schaub at quarterback. In fact, the only time their running game was below average was during the first three weeks of the year, when Arian Foster was alternately injured and far from 100 percent:
The foundation of Houston's offense is the zone-stretch play, the classic running play that embodies the zone-blocking scheme that Gary Kubiak took with him from Mike Shanahan and the "You, too, can run for 1,000 yards with the Broncos" days in Denver. The mechanics are complex, but the design is simple: The running back flows to a side behind his blockers without making any moves before bursting forward with his sudden cut uphill. That's the "one-cut" running scheme that has created superstars out of relatively unknown backs for years, most recently Arian Foster and Ben Tate in Houston.
Houston had some success with the stretch play against the Bengals the first time out, notably on a 44-yard run by Tate that saw him basically run unmolested the entire way. It was a perfect example of how the zone-blocking scheme should ideally work, and if the Texans can execute that well up front, it could be a very long day for Cincinnati. Brisiel's ability to pull outside can be key here, so it will be very interesting to see if his cracked ankle really allows him to play at anything resembling 100 percent.
The other reason why that stretch play is so important is that it plays an essential role in the Houston passing game, particularly with Schaub and Johnson absent. Play-action freezes the safeties and linebackers and allows tight ends Owen Daniels and Joel Dreessen to drag over the middle of the field, creating safe throws with comfortable passing lanes for Yates. Daniels is finally all the way back from his ACL tear in 2009, and he's one of the few tight ends in the league who can run a deep crossing pattern off of play-action without needing more time than his quarterback will ever have.
Virtually all of Yates' success in the Week 14 game came off of play-action, so it's essential for the Bengals to get their pass rush going and prevent Yates from picking up time to throw before making big plays. In their first meeting, the Bengals sacked Yates five times and knocked him down an additional five times on his 49 dropbacks, but the numbers don't tell the real story. Four of those five sacks were very clear coverage sacks, and the pass rush rarely won a one-on-one matchup up front. Dunlap is Cincinnati's best pure pass-rusher on the outside, but he's been struggling with a hamstring injury and has just 1.5 sacks since November 20. When Cincinnati forced Yates to stay in the pocket and go through his reads, he struggled to find open receivers and shipped a terrible interception on a sailed seam route. If the pass rush is good enough to neutralize play action, all the zone stretch in the world might not matter.
Of course, the total X-factor here is Andre Johnson. Since that ugly-looking knee/hamstring injury in Week 4 against the Steelers, Johnson has more injury reoccurrences (one) than touchdowns (zero). He's managed to make it into only three games, and has just eight catches for 140 yards in those games. Johnson played limited snaps against Tennessee last week, but there's been no indication that he's anything resembling the real Andre Johnson heading into these playoffs. If he is, obviously, everything changes for Houston. Just don't expect that to be the case.
Bengals on Offense
Why does an offense that features wideouts who can do front flips into the end zone rely on its tight end? Well, because Jermaine Gresham is really more than a standard tight end. Cincinnati's offense relies on a wide variety of formations and alignments, especially for a rookie quarterback, and their ability to get into all those formations depends on Gresham's ability to hold things together in the middle.
Like Daniels, Gresham can line up anywhere in the formation and beat anyone on the other side of the field. The Bengals like to split Gresham out against overmatched linebackers and undersized safeties and let him use his 6-foot-5 frame to create easy catches. He caught 61 percent of his targets this year in an offense where the two top wideouts caught 57 percent (Green) and 48 percent (Simpson) of throws from Andy Dalton. On Saturday, they'll try to isolate Gresham over the middle of the field with slants (against safety Danieal Manning) and drag routes (vs. linebacker DeMeco Ryans).
Cincinnati's biggest running play in the first game came out of an uncommon formation, the Full House. Commonly used by the Packers, the Full House is a two-tight-end set that features three players in the backfield, with two fullbacks blocking for a deep set back. Gresham doesn't do much on the play, as he's positioned away from the direction of the run, but the 42-yard run by Cedric Benson exhibits how effective the Bengals running game can be with good blocking, even against a Texans run defense that ranks sixth in the league in DVOA.2 Cincinnati was 4-of-4 when it ran in short-yardage situations (two yards to go or less) in Week 14.
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden can keep things exotic. This guy right here got a first down deep in his own territory by calling for an end-around on third-and-short, and then the Bengals gained a total of 38 yards on two shovel passes, one of which set up a field goal at the end of the first half. Part of that is to mask inferior personnel and inexperience, so the Bengals will really benefit from the return of Andre Smith, who has had a stunning year at right tackle after two years of injury issues. Smith, as you might remember, was the sixth overall pick in the 2009 draft after making the ill-advised decision to run without his shirt on. With left tackle Andrew Whitworth holding his own on the other side, Cincinnati may very well have the best pair of offensive tackles in football.
On the other hand, when all else fails, Dalton has no qualms about chucking the ball to Green and hoping that he comes up with a reception or a pass-interference penalty. Despite being shadowed by star Texans cornerback Jonathan Joseph for the entirety of the Week 14 game, Green managed to get both. He caught five of the seven passes thrown to him, gaining 59 yards, and also drew a 25-yard pass interference penalty on Joseph. When the Bengals went for it on a fourth-and-3 inside Texans territory, they naturally ran a crossing pattern with Green (versus Joseph) to get a first down. Joseph's a great cornerback, but the best he can probably do is slow Green down, not stop him.
Houston is at a significant disadvantage on kicking plays, as it employs two of the worst specialists in the league. Matt Turk was so bad in Jacksonville that the team turfed him just weeks into a season for which he was getting paid $2 million. He's been better in Houston, but for a guy who started his pro career during the glory days of Bush (the band), you would expect a lot more consistency. Turk came in because starter Brett Hartmann went on injured reserve, which created two problems for the Texans. Turk had to replace Hartmann's punts, but it also meant that Neil Rackers needed to return to kickoff duties, where he's struggled. Hartmann was averaging 66.1 yards per kickoff before going on IR, but Rackers is down to 62.8 yards. Cincinnati, meanwhile, is enjoying an excellent year from former Jets draft pick Mike Nugent, who is averaging 66.5 yards per kickoff.
If we could be sure that Andre Johnson was going to show up and play like the real Andre Johnson, it would probably be enough to swing this game toward the Texans. After their bye week, though, the Texans faced a group of six teams that finished with a record of 41-55 and went 3-3 while being outscored by four points. Too much is often made about the idea that teams need to be "hot" and have momentum heading into the playoffs, but there's little indication that this Texans team much resembles the unit that beat up on the Steelers in Week 4. Cincinnati 13, Houston 10.
Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.
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